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Churches weigh multitude of factors regarding outdoor services

Jim Seipel looked forward to hosting “Praise in the Park” Sunday mornings this summer.

The weekly religious music event began last year and attracted a number of residents with varying degrees of faith. Local religious leaders, including Seipel, the contemporary worship coordinator at Spirit Lutheran Church, 1310 Main St., aimed to expand it in 2020.

Those plans drastically changed because of COVID-19. “Praise in the Park,” like almost all other public events in recent months, has been delayed because of the pandemic. Spirit Lutheran had planned to partner with Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Trinity Lutheran Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church to host the festivities this year, but now it might be scrapped altogether.

Instead of bringing hundreds of people to Phoenix Park every week for Christian music and uplifting messages, the event won’t begin for at least a few weeks.

“We’re anxious for the day that we can continue,” Seipel said.

The most recent order from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department allows outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people as long as physical distance is kept. The order is in effect through July 8 and states that religious services are exempt from crowd size restrictions.

However, Spirit Lutheran Church Pastor Jim Ahlquist said the four churches do not yet feel comfortable hosting an event that would draw many people.

“We could have a crowd down there (that is) quite large and get away with that, but we want to be safe,” Ahlquist said. “We’re all about loving our neighbor the best way that we can, and right now we think it’s best not to gather (at Phoenix Park).”

Across the Chippewa River, Valleybrook Church recently started hosting private weekly worship services at the Owen Park Bandshell. Many health precautions are in place, although masks are optional, and between 100 and 125 people have gathered every Sunday in June to sing and practice their faith, according to Valleybrook Church Lead Pastor Travis Albrecht.

After sending out surveys to Valleybrook’s members asking for their input on several worship options, church leaders decided to make Sunday reservations from 10 to 11 a.m. at Owen Park from early June through Labor Day. The outdoor service is done in addition to a recorded service available online every week.

The church chose the location because coronavirus is less likely to be transmitted outdoors and Owen Park can easily accommodate physical distancing. Albrecht said Valleybrook keeps a list of attendees so COVID-19 contact tracing can occur if needed.

Signs are posted reminding people to keep six feet apart. There are hand sanitizer stations, and the service does not allow shaking hands or hugging. There is no communion, and no programs are given out. The church has song lyric sheets prepared several days before, and attendees can also find lyrics on their smartphone by using the church app.

Overall, Albrecht said attendees have followed health restrictions and appreciated gathering with one another after not going in-person to Valleybrook, a Converge church on 412 S. Barstow St., for nearly three months.

“People have loved it, because they’ve been able to be out in nature singing these songs to God our creator with no hindrance,” Albrecht said. “We couldn’t have predicted how people were so ready to see people again. They lingered and they talked a lot longer than they normally would have when we were just meeting every week. There was a deep hunger for connectedness.”

Valleybrook has historically held a service in Phoenix Park on Labor Day, so an outdoor venue wasn’t completely new. There are many more variables involved in having an outdoor service, but so far the weather has cooperated and everything appears to have gone well.

Most people sit apart on the benches in Owen Park, but Albrecht said others bring lawn chairs to sit particularly far away from everyone else, perhaps because they have underlying health conditions.

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 1300 Mansfield St., in Chippewa Falls will try something similar next month. The church plans to begin hosting worship services at Irvine Park every Sunday through Labor Day beginning July 5. It will have services at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. at the park’s main pavilion. There are benches, but congregants can also bring lawn chairs or blankets to spread out as much as they want.

According to Our Saviour’s Pastor Karen Behling, the choice was made to have two services to limit the number of people in the same place at once. The services will last about 45 minutes so the area can be cleaned and people rotated in and out.

Masks are optional but will be required if someone chooses to sing. Ushers will wear masks and write down people’s names for contact tracing. Ushers will also seat and dismiss people with physical spacing. There will be hand sanitizer stations. Communion will not be given out, and only one person will do the readings so the church microphone is not passed around. There will not be coffee or snacks afterward.

Behling looks forward to that first in-person gathering but knows she will likely have to remind people not to come into close contact.

“I think it will be hard for some people to resist that urge to hug one another and touch one another,” Behling said. “I’m expecting that I’m going to have to do a lot of gentle reminding.”

Behling said the social element of worship is important, especially for people who have limited access to technology to view virtual services.

“This was part of their weekly routine for their whole lives,” Behling said. “Not being with the gathered community on a regular basis has been hard for many … Where else do you come together with people and sing hymns? It’s the fellowship. It’s being together.”

Behling acknowledged that there are no guarantees that everything will go perfectly but believes the church has taken measures to make it as safe as possible.

“We recognize that a large number of our members would fall into the category of more vulnerable,” Behling said. “We really wanted to wait until we could feel like we had some more assurance that we could do this more safely … We know we’re going to be adapting and modifying as we learn along the way.”

Irvine Park will start hosting services in early July, but Seipel said “Praise in the Park” will begin in late July at the earliest.

Ahlquist said the churches want to welcome everyone to the music-filled event, so instead of excluding elderly people and individuals with underlying health conditions, they will wait until everyone can be included.

“We don’t want to be known as the church that spreads the disease around the community,” Ahlquist said.

Some people wanted “Praise in the Park” to begin this month, but after hours of conversations, church leaders chose to delay it.

“We decided that this was the best thing to do,” Ahlquist said. “People really want to get back together again. They’re getting restless … But I think they also are very good at doing what’s right.”

However, determining the right thing to do during a pandemic varies by church and will continue to present challenges for leaders going forward.

State GOP seeks veto-proof majority

As the November election nears, state Republicans find themselves within six wins of securing a veto-proof majority in the Wisconsin Legislature.

A supermajority in both chambers would allow Republicans to bypass any veto by Gov. Tony Evers at a time when there is little love lost between the GOP and Democratic governor. A two-thirds majority also would hand Republicans the pen — and with it the possibility of another 10-year reign in the statehouse — for next year’s redrawing of legislative district maps.

“To have those veto-proof majorities would change the dynamic of everything going on in the state and really allow the leaders in both houses to drive the train,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said.

Such a prospect has state Republicans gearing up for a strategic push to flip what they view as vulnerable Democratic districts in the Assembly and Senate, while the state Democratic party has circled the wagons with a campaign aimed at preventing Republicans from any gains in either chamber.

November’s election comes just two years after Wisconsin Democrats saw one of their most successful elections in years, with the party sweeping all statewide votes and unseating three GOP incumbents — including the ouster of two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker. At the same time, Republicans in 2018 held their now decade-long majority in the Senate and Assembly thanks to GOP-friendly districts drawn in 2011.

“No matter what happens this year, if it’s a challenging year like 2018 or it’s a great year like 2016 or 2014, I think Assembly Republicans are poised to add to our numbers or, worst case scenario, keeping the same,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said. “I think we’re going to add.”

The state Democratic Party this year launched a Save the Veto campaign with the goal of holding all their seats and preventing Republicans from reaching a supermajority.

“We’ve known for a while that this is something that Vos has been eyeing and frankly, it is very attainable for them,” Wisconsin Democratic Party spokeswoman Courtney Beyer said. “The stakes are really high.”

When Republicans drew legislative district maps in 2011, they did so in secret with each draft more carefully calibrated to fortify their chances of winning majorities. But those same maps have condensed Democratic voters, making seats held by Democrats more difficult to flip.

“We’re not going to let it happen,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said.

Republicans last fall changed state rules to allow for unlimited veto override attempts. However, votes to override three of Evers’ budget vetoes — as well as the governor’s veto of legislation to reduce the number of training hours required to become a certified nursing assistant — failed along party lines.

In addition to providing Republicans the votes needed to override future vetoes on legislation, a supermajority would drastically limit Evers’ power to adjust future GOP-drafted budgets.

GOP opportunities

Currently, Republicans hold 63 of the Assembly’s 99 seats and 18 of the Senate’s 33. Former state Sen. Tom Tiffany’s 12th District seat is vacant, after his election to the 7th Congressional District, but that district has leaned Republican for a decade.

Republicans would have to flip three seats in both the Assembly and Senate to achieve two-thirds majorities, but Vos said the odds of such a feat in both chambers are “nowhere near 50%.”

However, Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, pointed to the seats of departing Democrats Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and former Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, as up for grabs.

In 2016, Hansen beat GOP challenger Eric Wimberger by less than three percentage points and Shilling edged out Republican Dan Kapanke by only 61 votes.

The 10th Senate District, which Patty Schachtner won by more than 2,000 votes in a 2018 special election, provides another possible gain for Republicans, Fitzgerald said.

Both Wimberger and Kapanke are running again in the Senate’s 30th and 32nd districts, respectively, while Schachtner will face either current state Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, or Somerset small business owner Cherie Link — depending on who wins the August primary.

“We’re right there,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got three seats that absolutely are in play.”

In the Assembly, Republicans look to take back the 14th District, which Robyn Vining, D-Wauwatosa, won by less than a percentage point in 2018.

Republicans also said the Assembly’s 73rd, 74th and 94th districts provide other possible gains for Republicans.

“The path is there in both these houses,” said Jefferson.

Beyer said she couldn’t provide which districts the state Democratic Party is focusing on with its Save the Veto campaign, but said all witnessed narrow margins in previous elections. Democrats in those races can expect to see additional campaign support, Beyer said. She said efforts also are being made to remind voters to vote down-ballot.

District maps

Known for its battleground status, Wisconsin’s statewide elections often come down to the wire.

Such narrow margins are indicative of how split Wisconsinites are politically, which should translate to the Legislature, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.

“In Wisconsin it should be difficult for either party to be the supermajority, because it is a competitive, balanced state,” Burden said. “This is a state that wavers back and forth and is purple to its core and has this amazing balance of Republican areas and Democratic areas that tend to sort of counter one another.”

However, gerrymandered districts created by Republicans in 2011 have granted the party a decade-long majority in both chambers, especially the Assembly, which has not had fewer than 59 Republican representatives over the last 10 years.

Under Wisconsin law, both congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn by the state Legislature and are subject to veto by the governor every 10 years to adjust for population changes identified by the U.S. Census. In past decades due to split-party control of state government, the maps have been resolved by state and federal courts.

“The districts have been designed to be impervious to changes in public views on which party should be in office,” Burden said. “For Republicans to have a shot at doing that again for the next 10 years, it’s just too enticing to pass up. Even if it is very challenging, they’ve got to make an effort to win the supermajorities.”

Democrats have pushed for a nonpartisan redistricting committee and Evers earlier this year created a commission to do just that. However, Republicans have signaled a rejection of the governor’s proposal — adding to the list of partisan battles between Evers and GOP lawmakers that began before Evers took office, when Republicans convened in a lame duck session to limit the incoming governor’s power.

“Unfortunately, Republicans have spent the governor’s time in office — and even before he took office — trying to grab more power for themselves while ignoring the people of our state who overwhelmingly support the governor’s priorities like Medicaid expansion, nonpartisan redistricting, and fully funding our public schools,” Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudabeck said.

Ultimately, it’s expected any maps drawn in 2021 will have to be settled in court, as was the case in 2011.

Earlier this month, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, along with former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, made a proposal that any legal challenge would stay in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, rather than first work its way through lower courts.

If Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers next year, they could override any veto of GOP-drawn maps by Evers. Democrats could file a lawsuit against the maps, but may face challenges in the Supreme Court, which next year will have a 4-3 majority of justices backed by Republicans.

“If Robin Vos gets his fantasy come true … it will be like having Scott Walker back in power again because Gov. Evers, at least as far as legislation goes, will be eased out of the picture because his veto pen will be broken,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending.

Rural areas can't escape virus surge

For many states and counties in the U.S., the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic in April unfolded on their television screens, not on their doorsteps. But now, some places that appeared to have avoided the worst are seeing surges of infections, as worries shift from major cities to rural areas.

While much of the focus of concerns that the United States is entering a dangerous new phase has been on big Sunbelt states that are reporting thousands of new cases a day — like Texas and Florida — the worrying trend is also happening in places like Kansas, where livestock outnumber people.

In early June, Kansas looked to be bringing its outbreak under control, but its daily reported case numbers have more than doubled in recent weeks. On June 5, the seven-day average for daily new cases hovered at around 96; by Friday, that figure was 211.

As cases rise, the U.S. Army commander at Fort Riley in the state’s northeast ordered his soldiers to stay out of a popular nearby restaurant and bar district after 10 p.m.

Idaho and Oklahoma have seen similarly large percentage increases over the same three-week period, albeit from low starting points. In Oklahoma, the seven-day average for daily new cases climbed from about 81 to 376; Idaho’s jumped from around 40 to 160.

Many rural counties in states including California, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Florida have seen their confirmed cases more than double in a week, from June 19 to Friday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Lassen County, California, went from just nine cases to 172, and Hot Spring County, Arkansas, went from 46 cases to 415; both spikes were attributed to outbreaks at prisons. Cases in McDonald County, Missouri, more than tripled after Tyson Foods conducted facility-wide testing at a chicken plant there.

Missouri itself is seeing a worrying trend, and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas ordered employees and patrons of businesses to wear masks, when 6 feet of separation isn’t possible.

“Case numbers in Kansas City continue to rise, and we are taking all steps we can to ensure public health and safety,” the Democrat said Friday.

Across the state line, Kansas City, Kansas, and the county it’s in also decided to order masks be worn in public starting Tuesday.

But many politicians, even those in place with spiking cases, have been hesitant to issue such orders, as the subject has become a political lightning rod, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to use them.

The daily number of confirmed infections in the U.S. surged to an all-time high of 45,300 on Friday, eclipsing the high of 40,000 set the previous day, according to Johns Hopkins. The biggest spikes have been seen in the West and South. On Saturday, as officials announced that Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Florida would not include a planned bus tour, state health officials reported more than 9,500 new cases. That total eclipsed the previous day’s by more than 600.

While the rise in the U.S. partly reflects expanded testing, experts say there is ample evidence the scourge is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalizations in parts of the country and higher percentages of virus tests coming back positive.

The virus is blamed for about 125,000 deaths and nearly 2.5 million confirmed infections in the U.S., by Johns Hopkins’ count. But health officials believe the true number of infections is about 10 times higher. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives with nearly 10 million cases.

The resurgence in the U.S. has drawn concern from abroad. The European Union seems almost certain to bar Americans in the short term from entering the bloc, which is currently drawing up new travel rules, EU diplomats confirmed Saturday.

But the U.S. is not alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned Saturday that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. India reported more than 18,000 new cases, pushing its cumulative total over the half-million mark, the fourth highest globally behind the U.S., Brazil and Russia.

“The risk posed by the virus is still serious,” Merkel said. “It’s easy to forget because Germany has gotten through the crisis well so far, but that doesn’t mean we are protected.”

Elsewhere, Egypt and Britain said they would ease virus controls, while China and South Korea battled smaller outbreaks in their capitals.

Britain was expected to scrap a 14-day quarantine requirement for people returning from abroad in a bid to make summer vacation travel possible. Only travelers from “red” zones, places with a high level of COVID-19, will be told to self-isolate.

Egypt on Saturday lifted many restrictions put in place against the coronavirus pandemic, reopening cafes, clubs, gyms and theaters after more than three months of closure, despite a continued upward trend in new infections.

Authorities in other countries were taking a more cautious approach, with the Indian city of Gauhati, the capital of Assam state, announcing a new two-week lockdown starting Monday, with night curfews and weekend lockdowns in the rest of the state.

China saw an uptick in cases, one day after authorities said they expect an outbreak in Beijing to be brought under control in the near future. The National Health Commission reported 17 new cases in the nation’s capital, the most in a week, among 21 nationwide.

South Korea, where a resurgence in the past month threatens to erase the country’s earlier success, reported 51 new cases, including 35 in the Seoul metropolitan area.